Standing tall

Baemisaal, artist, body image advocate and plus-size model discusses her experience of breaking stereotypes and inspiring thousands of women.

Baemisaal, artist, body image advocate and plus-size model discusses her experience of breaking stereotypes and inspiring thousands of women.

The News on Sunday (TNS): What is body shaming and why do people do it?

Baemisaal: Body shaming is the act of intrusion, verbal violence and bullying against bodies people deem as unfit or inferior. There are several reasons why people resort to shaming. It is often due to one’s need to put others down to feel superior. A lot of people don’t realise that it is immoral although they do it out of spite, arrogance or a delusional sense of concern.

In my thesis, Pigs, Cows and Gluttons: Our Obsession with Body Image, I highlight certain aspects of the theory of human interaction that may lead some to shaming. Some people attack what they find wrong in themselves. We view the world through the lens we think it views us through. Most people who body shame others have an acute obsession with their own body image. Anything that deviates from the ‘perfect’ they have set for themselves, deserves shaming.

TNS: What do you say to someone who tries to body shame you?

Baemisaal: You don’t say anything to most body shamers, especially if them doing it only to feel good about themselves. You can often walk away. However, if it is someone close to you, you can sit down with them and have an open dialogue about how it bothers you and how perhaps their image of your body shouldn’t be a reason for them to not recognise your right not to be bullied or belittled. You can even ask them what they get out of shaming people? Often, people don’t know why they do it. The practice is normalised enough for many people to not realise how damaging their words and actions can be for those suffering at their hands.

TNS: Can you relate a personal experience on your way to learning to accept your body?

Baemisaal: You can’t always get into fights but sometimes you can and you should. Stand your ground. You can only change how you view the situation. I was given a vessel to live in and make it may home. I spent years hating it, viciously wanting it to change it and trying everything to do so. I was never happy until I decided to change all that and make sure I was happy, confident and content, no matter what I looked like. I also realised that no matter what somebody may look like, they are worthy of respect and kindness and that includes me.

TNS: How did you deal with body shaming and unsolicited comments by people?

Baemisaal: It depends on who is making those comments. If it is someone close to me, I sit down and talk to them. Sometimes they understand, sometimes they don’t. So I have trained myself to not see my worth through their eyes. If it is a stranger, I could not care less. Ranting about it online helps because I find a thousand other people who feel the same way and support me for speaking up. It always helps to be understood.

TNS: How can people respond constructively to body shaming?

Baemisaal: Again, it really depends on who’s doing the shaming. You can’t always scream at your family the way you can perhaps yell at strangers. However, I’ve noticed that starting a conversation about it helps people learn. People don’t always mean harm. Some of them just don’t think about the things they say as much as other people. If they’re willing to learn and listen, why not give them a chance. Always speak up because whatever you’re feeling is valid no matter what anyone says. If you’re feeling it, it’s real. Write it down, talk to a friend. Perhaps even teach yourself the jargon and narratives of body image. It’s a global movement now, there’s information at your fingertips.

TNS: The mindset sticking to a perfect body image appears to be deep rooted in our society. How can the damage be undone?

Baemisaal: Of course it is. We ourselves are bodies. We spend tons of time trying to look a certain way or not look a certain way. Our bodies are how we are recognised and how people perceive us. But at the end of the day, a body is just a body. One’s body image is a small fragment of their understanding of themselves. Get to know yourself. Question yourself. Why do you think the way you do? Could a change possibly help you and others in the long run? Do what you can. The way forward is dialogue and patience; most importantly perseverance. One should know about the movement, understand what it stands for, realise that bigger bodies started it. We must listen to them to move forward. There is no strength in division and exclusion.

TNS: You have a lot of admirers. You must have some haters too. How do you deal with them and has that changed over time?

Baemisaal: (Laughing) Indeed I do. Although I used to spend weeks obsessing over the haters more than the admirers. I used to cry and work myself up for weeks on end about what I could do to be better. But I realised eventually that I wasn’t the problem. And I’ve changed how I think now. Analysing things often helps. Once I draw a mind map of why people are the way they are and why they must say something, I realise that it has less to do with me and more to do with them. I can’t change their minds, especially when they refuse to learn. I talk about it on my platform. It helps to know that I am not alone.

TNS: Please tell our readers how body image comments can hinder one’s professional and mental progress.

Baemisaal: The mental abuse inflicted on people who suffer the insensitivity and violence of body shaming is severe. A single comment can be a trigger for someone who is already struggling with an eating disorder i.e. bulimia, anorexia, pica, binge eating, etc or with depression, anxiety, or a suicidal tendency. Just because we can’t see someone’s struggles does not mean they don’t have them. Eating and mental disorders are often not obvious. A lot of people can’t truly be themselves around other people due to body shaming. People often equate bodies with their preconceived notions of people in general. Having fat is not a failure. It is not something to be ashamed of.

The diet culture is an extreme cause of depression, anxiety and major eating disorders. It suggests that people are more or less good/moral/worthy based on their body size. The government-funded “war on obesity” is based on telling everyone that fat people should be stereotyped, shamed, stigmatised and harassed.

This is what google says now and I’m so glad that it does. Dieting and the obsession we have with it is more harmful than beneficial. Food is not the enemy. Fat isn’t either. Our narratives and perceptions of both are. To create an environment where people can prosper no matter what they look like on equal grounds is the goal. Our obsession with thinness and straight bodies is fairly new. Some parents starve their children from early childhood because the worst thing for them is to be fat. They do not realise the long-term harm.

TNS: What is the way forward for Baemisaal?

Baemisaal: I wish I had something solid to share but it’s never been a plan written in stone. It’s always been spontaneous and from the heart. My aim is to keep the dialogue going. I’ve achieved much from where I began without realising how much talking helps. People are listening and I’m glad they are, because I’m always listening and learning. Baemisaal is a voice, above all. Our obsession with body image isn’t going away soon, so my research and understanding of it is growing too.

TNS: How receptive of body advocacy are Pakistani audiences?

Baemisaal: The channels I have gotten through have been wonderful. I spoke about representation so much in the past, that I myself became the first of many plus-size models in my country. My presence anywhere serves a deep purpose, while challenging almost every stereotype related to someone like me. I am incredibly proud and thankful to have some of the biggest names listening to my conversations. I know my hard work hasn’t been in vain. I know it’s made an impact. Otherwise this interview might not be happening.

The writer is a journalist based in Lahore. He reports on politics, economy and militancy and can be reached at [email protected]. He tweets @hassannaqvi5

Standing tall